Mexico is a cacophony. It is everywhere and at all times noisy, riotous, polluted, and beautiful. My buddy James and I went to breakfast at Reina del Sur today. It’s a homely little place, four wobbly tables out front of a dingy kitchen. The wait staff is surly and slow, the coffee is terrible, and the juice is usually Tang. But the food is delicious and quick and there’s just enough quiet for a hangover. It’s great.
When we made it down to the main street across from Reina, the place was gone and some kind of fiesta was going on instead. Balloons hung in chains from every railing and cornice and masses of junk food had been unwrapped and set out as a buffet with a ten-dollar plastic chocolate fountain. Two girls, the worse for wear, were out stopping all traffic on what’s also the only highway through the Sierra, passing out fliers for a restaurant that has nowhere to park. Bachata music was blasting out at around lawnmower volume, and they had one of Mexico’s ubiquitous emcees belting a never-ending stream of gibberish. My boss has this ability and it’s fascinating—they can yell into the mic for hours without saying a thing, calling on passersby, cracking jokes, and selling whatever they’re selling, all of it just loud enough to be understood over the music.
We stood in the street for five minutes just looking at the train wreck. We ended up walking in but wishing there was some way to indicate with body language that everything they were doing was dissuading rather than persuading. When we made it into what used to be the cave of a kitchen, we saw that it had been turned into a dining room, new, light, clean. Slow renovations to the stove and overflowing sinks over the past year had exploded in two days. New floor, new walls, new paint, level tables, all approaching an actual restaurant. As we sat down, the guy with the mic dropped Reina del Sur into his monologue and James and I looked at each other. Only in Mexico can you have a grand opening a year after opening.
The two-year-old that is a permanent fixture of Reina—her parentage is indeterminate—toddled over and gave us our menus. We came in knowing what we wanted, what we always get: the “Complete Breakfast” with one or another type of eggs. It comes with coffee and juice, and like every other time at Reina, we ordered and then reconfirmed to our waitress over six more trips to the table that yes, we did want the coffee, yes, we did want the juice, yes, we had ordered eggs, yes, the other waitress had already taken our order four or five times. Every minute or so, the employee using one of their four tables to inflate balloons would pop one, feeding our headaches and making the kid cry. Behind James, a TV played BandaMax, the music coming out just loud enough to mix uncomfortably with the noise from the front.
“Only here would they fix the place up and then ruin it on the first day.”
“Can you imagine any breakfast place in the States that would play music too loud to talk over?” James yelled at me.
“Not one that’d try to drown out the music with banda,” I said, pointing to the mostly-naked women parading across the screen. Banda is American country set to a polka beat on tuba with heavy accordion soloing. Its image of itself is closest to nineties rap—guns and drugs and crime and women—and all of it’s sung by fat ugly men over the oom-pah-pah beat. It’s ridiculous.
We turned to watch the girls outside. “I like her panza,” James said. The one on the left looked more like a woman, but her baby bump was indeed moving a bit too much under her crop top.
“I just…” I started, before another balloon popped behind me. “Fuck! Just fucking stop!” Our waitress came over to tell us there was no juice. James asked her if there was other juice. There was. Could we have that juice? We could.
“You see that two-for-one breakfast thing on the way in?”
“Yea. That’s going to be a fucking discussion when the bill comes.”
“Always.” A waiter came over and plunked down a tray of not-so-recently unwrapped wafer cookies.
“Para que si gusten,” if it please you. My coffee arrived. James’ took another ten minutes.
Our food came, always as delicious as it is unexpected. And suddenly, silence. The balloon guy walked out to find less annoying employment, the girls in the street sat down and took their coffee, the emcee put down the mic to play with the speakers and the toddler crawled up into what may have been her grandmother’s lap. Our tortillas came out fresh and hot, and when the music started up again, it was quiet and slow, an old Chente ballad.
“Yea. Just like that.” We settled into our food and a comfortable hangover.
“Is that…is that him singing?” We turned around, and it wasn’t Vicente Fernandez crooning but the emcee, his endless nasal harangue turned to lilting, mournful ranchero. When we got to the check, they charged us for one breakfast, no questions asked.
Mexico is like this. Mad, manic contrasts, insufferable noise and confusion and everywhere tack, kitsch, junk that flowers in a moment into peace, beauty, and comfort.
I went up to James’ town for Día de Muertos because Jalpan celebrates it two days late on a Sunday night (“Of course they do” is a phrase that has made its pernicious way into our vocabulary). I like going up to see him alone and without a plan because it makes me feel like a real volunteer, living in the real campo. A bus will take you to El Lobo, the last town in this state on the way to Red Zone San Luis Potosí, but when you get off, you’ve still got thirty minutes to go up into the mountains, your only options hitchhiking and converted truck-taxis that run between the turn and Río Verdito, where he lives.
I was the only one looking for a ride in Lobo, and each of the cabbies was offering me an eighty peso trip. Haggling is part of what makes this special for me, and the journey is by tradition fifteen pesos, so I spit and said, “Don’t suck me,” no mames, and got a laugh from the five of them. “I’ll give you twenty or less.”
“Twenty’s for a full truck, eighty is to go alone.”
“Eighty is for a gringo. I live here.”
“But I need the money.”
“So do I, güey,” and they laughed again and we settled down in the rain to wait.
The first cabbie I talked to had been apple-picking in Michigan, so I chatted with him about cider and donuts and the cold until a sedan turned for James’ place.
“Hey, I know them! They’re going up, see if they’ll give you a ride.” I thanked the guy and shook the limp Sierra handshake and jogged over. I piled in with two parents, a baby, and a college kid headed home for the first time in six months. Total came to five pesos.
Río Verdito is a blip on the highway, a tiny collection of houses and shops huddled into a mountain curve with two hundred people to its name, a good third of the men working in the States at any given time. James lives high up on a hillside overlooking the town and the valley, but his house was locked when I hiked up. His kitchen’s always open, though, so I dropped my pack and dried out.
His dog Manchas, which means ‘stains’, wandered in out of the wet. Unknown persons tried and failed to castrate Manchas outside of James’ place while he was away, and on return he discovered myriad bloodstains and a new pet. Manchas has been hard used by the world, and you can’t quite tell what color fur he’s got because the mange has claimed most of it. The going cure for that in the Sierra is baths of burnt motor oil (“of course it is”), so Manchas reeks and still has mange, but getting even an iota of affection of James sealed the deal, and after three weeks together, he’s the most loyal dog I’ve ever seen.
I scratched him as little as I could without seeming rude and we both trotted off to find his human. When I walked into town, they told me James was in his house, or, failing that, in the house of Doña Juana, the more-or-less mayor. I climbed what I discovered was the wrong side of the hill she lives on and got more directions from a pleasant if surprised woman in her outdoor kitchen. Doña Juana’s kids sent me to the next house down. There, two old campesinos told me that he was probably in Doña Juana’s house. These were the types of old man that is everywhere in these mountains. Hardened by time and weather, brown, barklike, small, and always with a huingaro, the wicked serrano hand-scythe.
They’re also unfailing polite when they’re sober, and they told me that the next place, around the next curve, might be my best bet.
I want you to know that through all this there were fireworks. Fireworks are part of most fiestas, and fully half of the Day of the Dead out there. They are not colorful and for the most part not visible, either. They’re a thin hiss and then a deafening explosion. When shot from the bottom of the valley, as they were, they explode a head height, and they had me ducking and flinching like a man in a warzone two or three times a minute, a constant artillery bombardment.
When I found James in that last next house, all was tranquil. Dia de Muertos up there is an all-day eat, a walking tour of the community that stops in every door for tamales, piping hot coffee, and ofrendas, mealy corn cookies made with orange juice. James stood up and made the introductions to the four women in the room. It was small, dark, and warm, lit by the wood burning the in the concrete U of the stove and the foggy sunlight filtering in through the strung-together tree branches that pass for walls out there. I took coffee and asked about their families before settling down to talk to James.
“Pancho soaked Manchas in oil again.”
“Yea. I could smell.”
“Poor goddamn dog just needs to be fed and run around in the woods some.”
“It’d sure as hell give him less cancer than burnt up truck fluid.”
“Yea. Somebody told Pancho that he did his dog with Fabuloso and that fixed him right up. ‘Olió tan bonito,’ he said. Dogs fucking hate smelling like that.”
“What is Fabuloso? Floor cleaner?”
“Or fabric softener. Either way.”
We each packed away three pounds of corn meal and headed to the next place. James lives in the richest town in the region, courtesy of a host family strip mining for gravel and remittances from the States, but the next house had seen none of that lucre. They’d lined the walk up with petals of cempazuchitl, the orange flowers that have colored death festivals in Mexico since long before Catholic syncretism added crosses and virgins. Boughs of the fragrant stuff were pulled into arches overhead and the doorway was wreathed with them.
“James, man. This house is made of wood. Like real wood. Like somebody who knew how to use wood made this house. Hammers and nails and rulers and shit.”
“Yea. I’ve never seen this place before.”
We asked around, and only one of our lady companions knew the mistress of the place, a wizened, goblinlike señora who bustled us into the kitchen and pushed coffee and cookies into our hands. Mucho gusto, we said, pleasure to meet you, and it’s wonderful those times when it really is a pleasure. We ate as much corn as we could handle before wandering into the rest of the house. Mexican homes are made from poured, reinforced concrete, but this was wood, and not strings-and-stricks, but planed boards, joisted rafters, hardwood lovingly carpentered into a house possessed of rare right angles. We peeked into the attic, not meant for men of our height.
“That’s the first stairway I’ve climbed in six months with all the steps the same size.”
“Yea. Sometimes I get the feeling old Mexico might have a leg up on the new one.”
Our hostess pressed more tamales on us, heated on a wood-fired comal she’d kilned herself out of clay and a mineral rock she’d mined further into the mountains. She pulled cornmeal masa from a similarly homemade bowl that, she said, she’d turned more than forty years ago. I spent ten anxious minutes watching one of the ubiquitous neighborhood kids playing around it.
“Forty years old and he’s going to shatter it right here,” I said, as he slapped it with a toy snake. “You think anybody else around here remembers how to make those?”
“No,” James said,” and when she dies, it’s gone.” Women in that part of the mountains carry firewood on their backs, held up by a leather strap that passes around their foreheads. They do it until the day they die, which as often as not is the one they trip with fifty kilos of wood tied to their heads.
We plead off the next house on account of too much corn and rested at James’ a spell before heading out for El Banco. James’ site is Río Verdito, but relative wealth has made some of its people less pleasant and welcoming than the more humble serranos of the surrounding communities. A family in El Banco, a kilometer climb up the road, has adopted James, and that was our next stop. On the way we passed by el Chillón, the crybaby, an elderly alcoholic who bursts into tears on a regular basis. We turned down his offer of caña, the sugarcane moonshine they use to steep anise and various hierbas and what always looks to me like weeds.
James’ folks live in a shack, a concrete kitchen and a branch-and-tin adjoining room at the top of a complex of similar hovels. When they’re cooking, the house is warm and full of smoke, and they’re always cooking. Meeting so many new people is draining even in English, and I sat and dried off while he made more introductions and found me caña, fresh bread, and more tamales. His family remembers my name and I never recall theirs. This time they were baking cookies and pastries, heated on a clay plate with wood below and coals piled on another shelf above.
I wish I could relate to you the conversation, but it’s gone from me now. Comfortable nothing-talk, questions about the food and our folks back home, the coffee they pick and grind in the house, James’ Cortez-like effect on the local girls, how this or that country dance went. No-one is more welcoming than rural Mexicans, offering half or all of what little there is and eager to push more into your hands.
The boys who had been playing in the kitchen ran off into the night and came back with a wad of local tobacco, which they rolled in dried corn husks meant for the tamales. We passed the roll-ups all around, even the mother and shy teenage girls puffing along, all part of the tiny, close convivio.
This is what I wanted from Peace Corps, and what I want so badly to show to you. Among the distraction and confusion, the creeping American consumerism, the bombshells and the banda, there is this. Sweet, warm, welcoming, ever-accepting life like I’d never seen it. Among all the madness, there is always this.
And it is so beautiful.